Fired Louisiana Prosecutor Had ‘Whites Only’ Sign in Property He Owned

Jason Brown, who has worked in several parish DA’s offices, was accused of using illegal tactics to win at least one case before arriving in Calcasieu Parish, where he was terminated over alleged dishonesty in a continuance motion. Now, The Appeal has learned that he had segregation-era signs in an art studio he owned.

By Jon Campbell

On February 24, Calcasieu Parish prosecutor Jason Brown was fired after defense attorneys alleged that he withheld exculpatory evidence in the second-degree murder trial of Joey Julian. Prosecutors alleged that Julian, a Baton Rouge resident, fatally shot 38-year-old Ernest Samuel Miller in downtown Lake Charles, the parish seat of Calcasieu, in 2017. Brown’s firing followed his suspension by District Attorney John DeRosier for filing a motion to continue in the Julian case without informing a judge that defense attorneys were opposed to it.

Julian’s attorneys contend that Brown and a recently retired colleague, Cynthia Killingsworth, failed to disclose “a mountain” of exculpatory evidence in the case, and asked Judge Ronald Ware to hold a contempt hearing on the allegations for the week of Feb. 18. In an interview with The Appeal, Brown acknowledged that he moved for a continuance of the hearing—he said he had to attend a training—without informing Julian’s attorneys. Ware granted the motion without a hearing, under the mistaken belief that Brown cleared it with opposing counsel.

Todd Clemons, an attorney for Julian, told The Appeal that he made it clear to Brown that he would oppose any delay in the contempt hearing. He said Brown was dishonest about information the Calcasieu DA’s office had about the victim and dishonest with the court. Clemons and co-counsel Adam Johnson contend that Julian acted in self-defense, and information that might bear on the victim’s criminal history would be crucial to their defense strategy.

“We felt like [Jason Brown] had blatantly misrepresented and lied to the courts about what evidence the DA either had, or had access to, about this gentleman who was killed in this particular case,” Clemons said.

DeRosier told the Appeal that Brown’s firing was not related to allegations over the disclosure of exculpatory evidence, but solely because his continuance motion didn’t mention the objections of the defense. DeRosier added that he had not seen a pattern of similar conduct from Brown since he began working in Calcasieu in 2017, but that a single incident was “sufficient” to warrant dismissal.

Brown insisted that he did not purposefully try to deceive Ware, and said that he has received little information about his firing.

“I just know that it’s a contentious murder trial, and it became, you know, became an issue. On, I guess, on the motions and on the discovery issues,” he said.

The Calcasieu Parish DA’s office has a long history of allegations of misconduct, racism, and a practice of hiring prosecutors from the troubled Caddo Parish DA’s office. In November, the Washington Post reported that DeRosier’s office allowed thousands of people to buy their way out of community service by purchasing gift cards and money orders and donating them to the DA’s office. On March 9, KPLC-TV reported the Louisiana legislative auditor’s office has started an investigative audit of the Calcasieu DA’s office.

The auditor’s office confirmed the investigation to The Appeal, while an attorney with knowledge of the investigation, who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect his sources, said the inquiry is focused on both the gift card program reported by the Post, and Calcasieu’s Local Agency Compensated Enforcement (LACE) program. In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint about LACE with the Louisiana Board of Ethics, which called the program little more than a revenue generator for prosecutors. Under LACE, drivers cited for traffic infractions who pay a fee directly to the district attorney have their tickets dismissed, bypassing the courts completely. Those who cannot “pay off the district attorney,” as the SPLC put it, face prosecution. As the Post noted, the LACE funding scheme cuts into revenue that would otherwise go to local public defender offices.

Also in 2018, DeRosier testified against a bill to repeal nonunanimous jury verdicts in Louisiana, enacted during the post-Reconstruction era in the state. “I’ve heard a lot about this system being adopted as a result of a vestige of slavery,” DeRosier said. “I have no reason to doubt that. I’m not proud of that. That’s the way it started, but it is what it is.” In response, state Representative Ted James, a Black attorney from Baton Rouge, said, “Mr. DeRosier—I am so utterly offended for you to start your comments and say ‘I know that this was rooted in slavery, but it is what it is.’” Despite DeRosier’s opposition, in November 2018, Louisiana voters approved a measure requiring unanimous jury decisions for felony trials.

In 2015, when former appellate judge James Stewart became the first Black district attorney of Caddo Parish, 11 prosecutors left the office. At least two of them ended up in DeRosier’s office—including Brown. In 2018, The Appeal reported that DeRosier has employed at least six former Caddo Parish prosecutors.

In Caddo, Brown served under Dale Cox, who was such an enthusiastic proponent of the death penalty that between 2010 and 2014, more people were sentenced to death in the parish per capita than any other county in America. In 2015, Cox told a local newspaper that the state should “kill more people.” When his comments generated national outrage, Cox appeared on “60 Minutes” to defend them. “I think society should be employing the death penalty more rather than less,” he said. Brown’s fellow prosecutors at the Caddo DA’s office included Hugo Holland, who is currently on DeRosier’s payroll. Like Cox, Holland has earned a national reputation as an outspoken champion of the death penalty. In 2017, the Washington Post reported that Holland was  responsible for 10 death sentences, half of which had been overturned. Holland now works for at least 10 DAs offices in Louisiana, often on capital cases. In February, Holland secured a death sentence for Kyle Joekel for murdering two St. John Parish sheriff’s deputies in 2012.

As a Caddo assistant district attorney, Brown prosecuted Fate Winslow, a homeless man, for selling $20 of marijuana to an undercover Shreveport police officer in 2008. Brown filed a habitual offender bill against Winslow who was then sentenced to life without parole. James Cass was prosecuted by Brown for possession with intent to distribute about 1.5 ounces of marijuana, and Cass received a 40-year sentence. Larry John Thompson, also prosecuted by Brown, received a life sentence for possession with intent to distribute “five individually packaged rocks of crack cocaine.”

Brown’s hyper-carceral approach made him one of the most infamous prosecutors in Caddo Parish, according to defense attorneys who spoke with The Appeal.

“I’ll be honest, in my phone, I have his number saved as The Devil,” said Ernest Gilliam III, a defense attorney and former public defender in Caddo Parish. “And that was simply because he was a tough prosecutor and he didn’t want a whole lot of deals. He wanted to go to trial.”

Gilliam said Brown was known to push for the highest punishments possible, and for his inflexibility in plea negotiations.

“As far as toughness, unwillingness to work with you to resolve the case, and things of that nature, Jason was second to none. I think that anyone who was here would agree to that, and anyone in Calcasieu would agree to that. There’s never been anyone quite like Jason Brown,” Gilliam said.

Brown was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to win a case, including, in one instance, failing to disclose forged documents, said J. Antonio Florence, another longtime public defender and defense attorney in Caddo Parish. After his client Surcorey Odums was arrested on a homicide charge in 2013, a member of law enforcement prepared a fake DNA testing report to use as a “prop” during Odums’s interrogation intended to pressure him into a confession. The report featured the forged signature of a firearms expert and was never brought up at trial, nor was its existence disclosed to the defense. Florence said he was tipped off about the report by an assistant district attorney in a neighboring parish who was so troubled by the stunt that he felt the need to let Florence know.

Police and prosecutors may mislead and even lie in interrogations, but Florence said the forging of a signature constituted a crime. When it was finally presented in court, Florence said, the report was sealed in an evidence bag. Florence said when he asked the head of the lab “‘do you normally do that?’”—referring to the sealed evidence bag—he said no. Florence said when he asked why the report was presented that way, the lab head told him “‘because I believe a crime has been committed.’”

“He should have been fired on the spot,” Florence said of Brown.

Brown and Caddo prosecutors, including Holland and Lea Hall, were also accused by a whistleblower of being “police wannabes” who behaved more like gun-toting law enforcement officers than prosecutors. Brown acknowledged that he accompanied police on “search and arrest” operations, and helped form a club called the “Zombie Response Team,” complete with clothing patches and custom license plates. In July 2012, Holland and Hall were forced to resign from the Caddo DA’s office when an investigation by the Office of the State Inspector General found they falsified documents to improperly obtain automatic weapons through a military surplus program.

Brown, however, remained at the office.

Brown’s history should have kept him out of Calcasieu, said Adam Johnson, another attorney working on the Julian case.

“He was allowed to come in here and sort of prosecute for hire, and I just don’t like that, I disagree with it, and I think it’s an indictment of Mr. DeRosier’s decision making ability,” Johnson said.

In an interview with The Appeal, Brown didn’t dispute that he was reluctant to bargain with defendants. “No, I did not negotiate with defense lawyers and defendants very well at all,” he said. He said he was unwilling to reduce charges in serious cases and preferred to let judges make sentencing decisions. Brown characterized the Zombie Response Team as a harmless club, and said its uniform patches and other trappings were an inside joke. He acknowledged tagging along with police and sheriffs in some circumstances, like serving warrants, but denied that he ever blurred the line between police officer and prosecutors. He also regards the severe punishments he sought as justified by the criminal histories of the defendants in those cases. And Brown told The Appeal that he had nothing to do with the forged DNA report in the Odums case, and insisted he turned the report over to the defense, though a Nov. 30, 2016, decision from the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeals indicates that the report was never disclosed. The court said, however, that the failure to turn over the report wasn’t material to issues at the Odums trial because it had never been relied upon as evidence.

Illustrations by Ariel Davis.

In August 2019, Brown was disqualified as a candidate for the Bossier Parish Police Jury—the equivalent of a county governing board—over questions about his residency. It was the second of his three campaigns for public office that year. Months before, in March, Brown lost a bid for a judgeship on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the same seat abruptly vacated by Henry Brown, his father, amid a corruption investigation in 2018.

Brown claimed in official paperwork that he lived in and made his official “domicile” in a home in Bossier Parish. A trial judge disqualified him after an examination of water use records, testimony of neighbors, and other evidence that suggested he actually spent little time at that home, which property records say belonged to his father until December 2019, when his father sold him the home.

On Jan. 10, Brown filed to run in another Bossier Parish campaign, this time for a seat on the parish’s Republican Executive Committee. His residency was challenged, and he was again ruled ineligible to run. That ruling was affirmed on appeal by the Second Circuit in a decision handed down on Feb. 4, just two weeks before Brown’s suspension by the Calcasieu DA became public.

As part of that litigation, The Appeal has learned, Brown associate Rick Raster testified that Brown owns an art studio in Shreveport adorned with segregation-era “colored” and “whites only” signs over the bathroom doors.

In Raster’s Jan. 31 testimony, he said Brown’s studio at 975 Texas Ave., a former manufacturing facility that included a space that Brown and his wife frequented, has a “restroom area you’ve got coloreds and whites … it’s from 1930, which is original to the building.”

In an interview with The Appeal, Brown acknowledged the existence of the signs but downplayed their significance. He said the signs were uncovered during renovations and had since been covered up. Asked how long they were visible given Raster’s recent testimony about them, Brown said he didn’t know, nor could he estimate an amount of time.

Brown noted that he attended Southern University and A&M College, a historically Black institution in Baton Rouge, and is a member of the NAACP. He said any suggestion that the signs indicated racial prejudice on his part were unfair. He also pointed out the victims in many of the cases he prosecutes are Black. DeRosier told The Appeal that he was unaware of the racist signs on Brown’s property and declined to comment about them.

In 2016, Brown went public with his objections to the removal of a Confederate soldiers memorial in Caddo Parish. According to minutes of a meeting of the Caddo Parish Committee about the memorial, Brown said “our forefathers fought in this country, together. [Brown] stated that this is a historic monument dedicated to veterans. He believes that this City should move forward and focus on growing and making this City better. He also reiterated that history cannot be changed.” Brown would not comment when asked about his support for the Confederate soldiers memorial; instead he referred this reporter to his comments before the Caddo Parish Committee.

Julian attorney Clemons said that the Jim Crow-era signs displayed in Brown’s building underscored why he should not be serving the public.

“That just says a lot about his character,” Clemons said, “and that just shows he’s clearly not fit, in this day and age, to serve as a public official adjudicating someone’s justice—or lack of justice—in the courtroom.”

Originally published in the Appeal.

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